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Sevenoaks District Council start fight back after local plan is turned down by the Planning Inspectorate

A council has launched judicial review proceedings after a Government-appointed planning inspector turned down its local plan for nearly 10,000 homes.

Last month, the final report on the examination of Sevenoaks District Council's (SDC) blueprint for development in the district up to 2035, was issued.

The headquarters of Sevenoaks District Council
The headquarters of Sevenoaks District Council

Planning inspector Karen Baker said was not satisfied that the council had worked with other local authorities to solve the unmet housing need and ruled the plan was not legally compliant in respect of the Duty to Co-operate.

It therefore could not be adopted.

However, SDC strongly refute this, arguing that more than 800 pages of evidence setting out how the council had worked with its neighbours, had been submitted with the plan, which, in the future, will be used to determine planning applications.

Sevenoaks is the only local authority in the county to prepare a plan for fewer homes than would be suggested using the Government's formula for "objectively assessed housing need."

The Sevenoaks' housing need figure came to 11,312 homes over its 16-year plan period, but the council decide to draw up a local plan that would provide only 9,996 homes, or 88% of the "requirement" arguing that the extensive area of green belt in the district made it impossible to meet the whole target.

Cllr Peter Flemming, Leader of Sevenoaks District Council
Cllr Peter Flemming, Leader of Sevenoaks District Council

Mrs Baker's allegations that the council had not satisfactorily worked with neighbouring councils to accommodate homes that could not be built in the district, surfaced after the first round of public examinations in October.

She halted the public hearings and asked the council to withdraw the document but it refused to do so.

Cllr Peter Fleming, Leader of the Council, says: “Taking legal action is not something we would undertake lightly and demonstrates we are serious about standing up for our residents and our cherished environment, against what we believe is a fundamental failure by the Planning Inspectorate to take account of the weight of evidence in front of them.

“Working with landowners, communities and developers, our new local plan put forward innovative solutions to deliver almost 10,000 homes and improved infrastructure while protecting nearly all of our green belt.

"It’s a huge frustration that, after so much work, we cannot take our plan forward at this time.

“In our view, concluding we failed to co-operate with neighbouring councils was the only way to halt the examination. We reject this. We gave the planning inspector detailed evidence of our work with our neighbours and, from the start, they said they couldn’t accommodate the homes we could not deliver.”

Cllr Julia Thornton, Cabinet Member for Development & Conservation at Sevenoaks District Council
Cllr Julia Thornton, Cabinet Member for Development & Conservation at Sevenoaks District Council

Cllr Julia Thornton, Cabinet Member for Development & Conservation, adds: “If the Inspector did have significant concerns over our Duty to Co-operate, these should have been raised soon after we had submitted our plan, not months later. We fundamentally disagree with the inspector’s conclusions and firmly believe key parts of the plan requirements have been incorrectly interpreted."

Robert Jenrick, The Secretary of State for the Department for Communities, which is responsible for the Planning Inspectorate, will have an opportunity to respond before a judge decides if the case should proceed. In the light of the Coronavirus outbreak it is not possible to estimate when a hearing may take place.

In a final report issued last month, Mrs Baker acknowledged the council had prepared a joint evidence base with other local authorities which underpins many policies in the plan, such as a Strategic Housing Market Assessment with Tunbridge Wells Borough Council.

However, she said: "In respect of compliance with the Duty to Co-operate, my concerns relate to the lack of ongoing, active and constructive engagement with neighbouring authorities in an attempt to resolve the issue of unmet housing need and the inadequacy of strategic cross boundary planning to examine how the identified needs could be accommodated.

"The joint evidence produced by the council in co-operation with others is not, therefore, of direct relevance to this matter as it does not address unmet housing needs."

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